Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Shlagoom

Budd Schulberg once said “I believe the novelist should be an artist cum sociologist. I think he should see his characters in a social perspective. I believe in art, but I don’t believe in art for art’s sake.” Well, I do. As a matter of fact, generally speaking there are few things a novelist could say that would make my soul wither more than this. An extreme reaction, no doubt, but there it is. I’m tempted to make even more radical “art for art’s sake” kind of statements, but please note I did say this was, however strong, still a general belief, because, as it happens, one of the few exceptions to this is Budd Schulberg himself. Not because his politics or social beliefs line up so exactly that I think “Well obviously this stuff is okay,” but because all of the things Schulberg believes should be a novelist’s job, as practiced by him, combined to make him an excellent anthropologist, not to mention – and this perhaps explains it – a fine writer.

All of these various writing jobs Schulberg took upon himself could also cause him to stumble, as in the “this is why he’s like this” section of What Makes Sammy Run?, which, not coincidentally, was also no doubt the driving force behind Schulberg writing that novel in the first place. But it could all pay off for him, or mostly pay off, as I saw firsthand when I recently read his 1955 novel Waterfront. If Budd Schulberg’s name and the word “waterfront” immediately form an association in your mind, you should probably also note that year of publication. On the Waterfront, the Academy Award-winning film he wrote, directed by Elia Kazan, was released in 1954. Schulberg was one of the many artists to win an Oscar for that film, but he apparently wasn’t thoroughly satisfied by that and chose to expand on his own script, to novelize it, essentially, and the results were published the following year. And it’s a fine book, I’m happy to report, though its basic goodness isn’t the most interesting thing about it. Referring to Schulberg’s novel based on his own screenplay as a novelization implies certain things, none of them good, so I’d like to go on record now and say that Waterfront (which is now in print under the title On the Waterfront, a fact that I find regrettable) does not embody any of the negative things you’d normally associate with movie novelizations. It’s its own curious beast. Watching the film again today, for the first time in a long time, I was surprised and fascinated by how much it felt like an adaptation of the novel Schulberg wouldn’t publish for another year. Certain events feel condensed now, character histories and motivations hacked to the bone, the environment, while rendered with beautiful precision by Kazan, nevertheless now seems less sprawling and less populated and less wild. Yet at the same time, when I read the “contender” scene in the novel, I thought “Oh well of course he put this in verbatim. If he didn’t fans of the movie woulda flipped!” Similarly, when Terry Malloy, the lazy, dumb, apathetic, but morally tortured mug played by Marlon Brando, takes Katie Doyle (oh, I should point out here that Edie, the Eva Marie Saint character in the film, is for some reason named Katie in the novel, a fact I also find regrettable, for rather obscure reasons), the young woman whose union-firebrand brother Joey is murdered at the story’s opening by the corrupt thugs who currently run the New Jersey longshoremen union around which everything whirls, Joey having been lured to his doom by an unwitting Terry (he thought they’d just lean on him a little), out for a drink and urges the innocent and pious Katie to knock back her shot, that whole business, with Katie/Edie turning green and dazedly muttering “Wham,” is a pure movie scene, but it makes it into the novel intact.

So it’s like that, sometimes. Meanwhile, Father Berry, the neighborhood priest who takes up the mantel of the deceased Joey Doyle and tries to unite and inspire the longshoremen who have been spiritually and financially pulverized by the corrupt union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), can at times seem like the lead character of Schulberg’s novel. On the Waterfront is entirely Terry Malloy’s film, but Father Berry – and Katie, too, at times – takes over great whacks of the book, as Schulberg focuses on his reaction to Katie (or Edie’s) rebuke that saints never hide in churches, and his rousing of himself out of his own apathy – apathy is almost a theme of the book – and actually do the hard job of being a priest that he’d originally signed up for. In the novel, this is all rather interesting, and depicted by Schulberg with a lot of passion. He quotes Saint Francis Xavier at length, for example, and Father Berry uses his teachings as his blueprint. The question “Can Father Berry pull this off?” almost overshadows “Will Terry do the right thing?”
As a result of all of the above, the novel could be considered a richer version of this particular story. The above, and stuff like this:

Loading and unloading is an art and a fever. The dock boss is on you all the time. Unload, load and turn ‘er around. The faster she puts a cargo down and picks up another, well, that’s where the money is. Do a three-day job in two and there’s your profit. Legitimate profit, that is. Oh, there’s plenty of the other kind for the mob who’s got the local and the Bohegan piers in its pocket. More ways to skin this fat cat than you ordinary citizens would ever dream. You take sixteen billion dollars’ worth of cargo moving in and out all over the harbor every year and if the boys siphon off maybe sixty million of it in pilferage, shakedowns, kickbacks, bribes, short-gangs, numbers, trumped-up loading fees and a dozen other smart operations, why, who cares – the shipping companies? Not so you could notice it. The longshoremen? Most of them are happy or anyway willing just to keep working. The city fathers? That’s a joke on the waterfront. The people, the public, you’n’me? All we do is pay the tab, the extra six or seven per cent passed on to the consumer because the greatest harbor of the greatest city of the greatest country in the world is run like a private grab-bag.

This is a good passage, because it encompasses a lot of what’s going on in the novel. This is from the beginning of the book, taken from several pages of such stuff, and while the sardonic humor of this prose doesn’t travel too far into the rest of the novel, save for in some very sharp dialogue, it gets across the very specific anger driving Schulberg. Father Berry was based on a real priest, Father John Corridan, and the corruption, murder, and apathy that made up daily life along this New Jersey piers was not invented – I know you all know this, of course, but the novel is much more specific than the film, is my point (you probably also noticed Schulberg’s use of the phrase “on the waterfront.” That happens in the film, too, a couple of times, but unfortunately Schulberg hammers it pretty hard in the novel, and perhaps he, too, wished he’d used that for the book’s title). The drunken lives of the longshoremen who would rather drink up the money they haven’t earned yet for doing jobs they haven’t done yet because the option to live under these conditions sober is clearly off the table, and to try to do anything about it would not only ruin them but would ruin their families as well, is really the meat of Waterfront. This is the suffering Schulberg wants to see end. The murders, too, obviously, but the murders are the exclamation points scattered around the rest of the tremendously sad and infuriating story. In the film, Schulberg and Kazan only had time to allude to these lives, but in Waterfront the main characters are constantly walking in and out of them.
What Waterfront doesn’t have, however, is Kazan. Or Brando or Cobb or Malden or Rod Steiger or Saint (Saint in particular, in fact, as she brings some fire to a character that, on the page, can sometimes make you want to tell her to fuck off. The following is an actual quote from Katie Doyle, stating her reaction to having the truth of life on the waterfront laid out for her by her Uncle Frank: “But Uncle Frank, in civics we learn…in America…” Don’t worry, though, there’s not a lot of that). The significance of On the Waterfront in Elia Kazan’s life and career cannot be understated, and Kazan himself confirmed that in his mind the film was, at least in part, a defense of his own decision to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. That’s the kind of thing that will keep Ed Harris from standing up for you when you get an honorary Oscar, but even knowing this Kazan stuck to his guns. If you care to know, I am entirely okay with this. I also do not find this element of subtext to On the Waterfront uninteresting, or something about which too much is made, or not worth hashing out, even if it’s hashed out to a standstill, which it undeniably would. But the truth is, while watching On the Waterfront today, what I was entirely swept up in was the “art for art’s sake” element to it. On the Waterfront hardly seems like the kind of film to inspire that kind of rumination, but it did in me, and one of the things I wondered about was why this film isn’t typically considered film noir. I’m hardly the first person to wonder about this, or to say “Hey maybe it should be” or anything, but look at this:
What kind of movie are you looking at here? Plus, all the crime. On the Waterfront would not be the only film noir Elia Kazan ever made, and it would by no means be the only socially conscious film noir ever made. And boy does it land squarely in that sweet spot, with the questions of morality, corruption, murder, and a man’s conscience on the brink. Chronologically, even, the early 1950s being quite a fruitful period for the genre. It’s a magnificent piece of filmmaking, in any case – Kazan makes things look perpetually damp and chilly, the sky eternally white and threatening. The look of the film, which Kazan devised with cinematographer Boris Kaufman, now appears to have been the inspiration for Allen Baron’s Blast of Silence from 1961 and Herk Harvey’s Carnival of Souls from 1962 – there’s a quality to the grayness in all three that’ quite similar, and evocative of lives lived on the edge of water. That’s kind of key to On the Waterfront and Carnival of Souls, less so to Blast of Silence, that is, until that film’s climax, when suddenly water and death, or anyway violence, eternally re-link the three movies together.

Plus, as we understand him, Kazan gave us Brando. The amazing thing I realized today as I watched is, well, first: you know how one of the qualities of great acting, or the results on the audience of great acting, is that you forget about the actor and believe you’re simply watching the character? Certain qualifiers have to be put in place in order for this to work, not least that it is I believe neurologically impossible for a healthy and sane person to actually do this, as well as that considering this to be the one true goal of acting is to restrict the kind of acting you can enjoy, but anyway, we all understand what’s being gotten at here, and can acknowledge that in many, many cinematic circumstances, the kind of acting being described is to be hoped for. With that understanding, the amazing thing I realized while watching On the Waterfront today is that at certain times Marlon Brando, the most famous American actor in his most famous film role in one of the most famous films ever made is making me think more about Terry Malloy than about him. Take that scene where he takes Edie out for a drink, and he's telling her his story, and says “my dad got bumped off, never mind how.” That “never mind how” is absolutely brilliant, because there’s a pause just before it, and among the many things you can intuit Terry is thinking about in that pause are the way his father died, how he doesn’t like thinking about it, how he doesn’t want to tell Edie about it and so he should cut off her natural question before she can ask it, how, “bumped off” implying homicide as it does, Terry’s moral compass has just gone crazy again, because who “bumped off” his dad “on the waterfront” if not some version of the men he now (kinda) works for? And so on. Brando’s performance here is positively overflowing with that kind of thing. He’s Terry Malloy, and that’s it.
This will count as a spoiler, I guess, but Terry Malloy’s fate in the novel is somewhat different from what he faces in the film. Schulberg’s optimism, what there was of it, may have calcified in the interim, I don’t know. But Waterfront ends with quite the kick in the nuts. One of the results of this is that while Waterfront may sometimes be Father Berry’s book, and it may sometimes be Katie’s book (Johnny Friendly also appears less, and after an initial flurry of scenes setting up him and his henchmen, he becomes more of a shadow hanging over everything) it finally is, as the film is, Terry Malloy’s. In Malloy, Schulberg created a truly unique character. The versions found in both the book and the film isn’t some secretly wise young man, some still-waters-run-deep brooder. He’s a genuinely dumb guy. If he honestly believed Joey Doyle was only going to be leaned on, that’s a dumb thing to believe. And how often are our heroes so stupid? Father Berry and Katie/Edie cut this somewhat (more Edie than Katie, in my view) and in fact as fascinating, and even as crucial, as the additional material about Father Berry was to Waterfront, there is a fascination for the reader in finding their (my) wagon, narratively and morally speaking, hitched to such a lazy doofus. And he’s not charmingly or sweetly dumb – he’s dumb like real people are dumb. His moral awakening is very basic, and is understood by him on a very basic level. Even so, there’s never a point when he’s not also confused about something. Schulberg created him, and Kazan and Brando planted him right there on his roof with his pigeons. And not for nothing, dumb as he is, he’s capable of standing up. Or, depending on which version of the story we’re talking about here, trying to.

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